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Revolution in the air

Coronavirus has threatened the classical music world’s very existence while simultaneously showing us how much we all need it. Can the business find ways to harness this passion in its survival plans?

It’s two years to the day since one of the most magical and thrilling experiences of my life – playing Brahms in Berlin’s Philharmonie alongside the international amateurs of the BE PHIL orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle. I wrote about it for the Guardian and followed up with an article about the under-acknowledged importance of amateurs to the music world and why we should be brought into the hallowed halls of classical music.

I’m convinced that when we eventually emerge from our solitary lockdowns, the classical music world is going to need its amateurs more than ever. It should be thinking of ways to work with them and offer them high-grade musical experiences such as the BE PHIL.

The current situation has taught us many things, both good and bad, one of which is how profoundly necessary music is at a time like this. Our vulnerability and mortality suddenly very real, many people have felt the need to play and sing, even as a tiny square on a computer. The online outpouring of music has been cross-denominational: top soloists, orchestral players, chamber musicians, amateurs, students, teachers and children have all posted their performances. Musicians of every standard have been playing outside their houses making their neighbours cry (in a good way). My social media feed is full of people, both young and old, picking up long-discarded instruments to fill the time. Even those, like me, who haven‘t felt like going public have been glued to Radio 3 more than ever before.

It has revealed the very essence of music, which is to connect and comfort. In an extreme like this, it doesn’t matter if the sound quality is terrible or the players can’t quite hear each other. It’s all the same if they’re competition-winning stars or they only started to play at the beginning of lockdown. If either playing or listening to music makes someone feel better, it has value – simple. (I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter how well someone plays – I’m a total violin snob, but in this context, quality is not the point.)

It’s a revolution of sorts – a seizure of the means of production. Anyone can perform anywhere, regardless of having a manager or press officer – or playing note perfect

It’s a revolution of sorts – a seizure of the means of production. Anyone can perform anywhere, regardless of having a manager or press officer – or playing note perfect. This is a democratisation of music, and rather than feel threatened or competitive, the classical music establishment should harness this groundswell of feeling and energy, and its new recruits.

The current model of the classical music community is a Venn diagram of performers, teachers, amateurs and students, all in their own circles, with only some enlightened musicians in the crossover areas. What we’re discovering is that we have much more in common than that. There is a continuum that runs from a beginner at one end to the world’s greatest musician at the other, with amateurs ranging from terrible to really quite good.

Fundamentally, our needs and drives are the same. Professionals have worked harder, studied more deeply and consistently, and may have a different degree of talent. But maybe amateurs are closer to the daily ‘connect and comfort’ aspect of music, freed from technical judgement and financial imperatives. Essentially, we are the same species and we must support each other.

Simon Rattle showed the way with BE PHIL, his big-hearted, open-minded vision of bringing amateurs into the famous Philharmonie – I understand that Kirill Petrenko, his successor in Berlin, will conduct another in May 2021. Nicola Benedetti has gone even further in the belief that music belongs to everyone in her efforts to reach every level of player and promote good teaching practice. During lockdown she’s ramped up her commitment, offering Virtual Sessions across the entire continuum, with an energy and generosity that will certainly see a surge in violinists and may change lives.

Aside from the moral and spiritual reasons to include amateurs, there’s a more pressing practical one: most amateurs have money. While professionals have had their incomes slashed from one moment to the next for the foreseeable future, amateurs are by-and-large still going about their professions – and spending less money during lockdown (we’re also desperately missing our own concerts).

The brutal reality is that orchestras, venues and conservatoires are not going to function at full capacity for months yet. I’m sure they’re all working on creative solutions with socially distanced players and audiences, and activities that can work as stopgaps: I hope they will factor in amateurs and our need for a piece of the action. Even within the possibilities of small group sizes and safe spaces, there must be real-life formats that will work as lockdown is released: play-days, chamber music sessions, masterclasses, lessons, lectures.

The classical music business is at survival stations, and musicians and arts organisations have the right to hustle as much as they can

In the past such events might have been free, a way of building audience loyalty, but we’re past that point and organisations should charge us well. The classical music business is at survival stations, and musicians and arts organisations have the right to hustle as much as they can. In my opinion, the time to give everything away free ended weeks ago and organisations that are still doing so are setting up problems in expectation. How many £3 cups of coffee, £6 glasses of wine and £15 cinema seats have people saved themselves now? We should all be contributing to the things that give us sustenance. I’m sure my amateur colleagues appreciate the need to pay for meaningful musical experiences, and understand the consequences if our favourite orchestras, musicians and venues fail. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

'Meaningful' is key. So, my advice to music organisations and musicians is this: grift and hustle us. But respect, challenge and stimulate us – do not patronise us. We’re on the same side and we need each other more than ever.


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